Egyptian Civil Rights: 156 Christians Arrested Over Church

Egyptian officials have arrested more than 150 Christians in connection with a protest over an unfinished church.

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Maayana Miskin, | updated: 12:39

Egyptian forces (file)
Egyptian forces (file) / ITIC

Egyptian officials arrested 156 Christians Thursday in connection with a protest one day earlier over an unfinished church. One Christian protester was killed by police during the Wednesday demonstration.

The detainees are charged with several crimes, including attempting to murder the assistant head of security in Giza. They were not allowed legal representation during questioning.

The just recently publicized Executive Summary of the U.S. State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report  for 2010 listed Egypt in the category of countries who have "noteworthy" violations of religious freedom,, a placing protested strongly by Egypt;'s government.

The Christian community in Giza had planned to use a partially-complete building as a church once construction is finished. However, the community was denied a permit for a church and told the building can be used as a community center, but not as a house of worship.

Government officials have accused the community of violating building law, while many Christians have accused the government of discrimination against non-Muslims.

Earlier in November a Muslim mob burned down several Christian homes in southern Egypt over rumors that a Christian man had been seen walking with a Muslim woman.

United States officials have expressed concern over the timing of recent Muslim-Christian clashes. Tensions between Egypt's Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority have risen shortly before the parliamentary elections scheduled for December.

“We've seen a clear uptick in recent weeks of incitement coming from media outlets and clerics espousing sectarian hatred and violence.This kind of rhetoric goes too far and stokes the fire of extremists looking for ammunition to justify violent acts against religious minorities,” said Leonard Leo of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Egyptian Foreign Affairs Committee head Mustafa El-Feki laid the blame elsewhere, accusing Israel of causing Muslim-Christian fighting. The Mossad was behind recent clashes, he claimed.

Persecution of religious minorities in Egypt dates back generations, and led to the expulsion of nearly all of Egypt's Jews. Despite this, Egyptian Jews have a long history, as attested to by the 280,000 documents in the  Cairo Geniza, found in a synagogue storeroom in 1996,  taken to Cambridge University by the British and still being catalogued to date.

Members of the Jewish minority, which in the 1940s numbered approximately 80,000, were usually denied citizenship. In 1948 bombs were set off in the Jewish quarter in Cairo, murdering 70 and wounding hundreds more.

In 1956, the Egyptian government expelled 25,000 Jews and confiscated their property. A second round of expulsions and confiscation took place in 1967.

It is estimated that less than 100 Jews now live in Egypt. Anti-Semitism,however, remains a problem, as media outlets often incite against Jews and Israel.

The government has announced plans to honor Jewish structures as part of Egyptian history, and in March 2010 completed a restoration of the historic Maimonides synagogue in Cairo. However, no government officials attended the opening of the synagogue, and the government announced shortly after the opening that Jews would not be allowed to pray in the building.